Why Web Development Projects Fail

A story I hear far too often from prospects is that they just fired their previous web developer. You might think I like hearing this because it means our competitors are falling down which is good for us. I actually hate hearing this story. For one, I feel bad for the person standing in front of me who just spent good money and now feels it was a partial or total loss. For another, when web developers leave unhappy customers in their wake, it makes our whole industry look bad. If we’re not careful, the general public perception of web developers will eventually rival that of used car salespeople.

There are several causes for customers having a bad web development experience. It’s easy to point to the vendor and in most cases the vendor is at fault to one degree or another. However there are also things that customers can do to avoid this situation.

One issue is that there is no standardization in our industry. There is little in the way of accepted degrees, certifications or standards like there are for home builders, lawyers or even massage therapists. As a result, anyone can teach themselves a little about HTML and Photoshop and call themselves a web developer and it can be difficult for prospective customers to easily recognize the difference between an experienced company and a fly-by-night operation.

Another issue has to do with the way that web development companies charge for their services. Most customers expect to get a fixed bid on their website project. They want to know how much it will cost and they want the developer to stick to this bid. On the surface, that makes perfect sense and is the way that many other services are sold. However, in the case of web development, it can be a huge mistake, especially on larger projects. Here’s why…

In a perfect world, the web developer would have a perfect specification document that details what is going to be included in the project and they would perfectly estimate how long each task would take. It’s not a perfect world, though, and even the best specification documents have holes, inconsistencies and gray areas. And no estimator is perfect. The larger the job, the more likely the spec will be incomplete and the more likely the estimate will be off, often significantly. Add to this what we call the “customer variable.” Some customers make decisions quickly, don’t change their minds and are willing to accept less than a perfect outcome, knowing that the web is an ever evolving medium and that great websites are constantly being improved.

Other customers are slower to make decisions and want to see every possibility before they settle on one. Some are perfectionists, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but high expectations can lead them to require far more revisions to get things the way they want them than another customer might need.

Together, the problems of imperfect specification documents, imperfect estimation and wildly different client dispositions means that an estimate can easily be 50-100% off, in either direction. If the project is a fixed bid, the customer is either getting a great deal or they are overpaying. No one wants to overpay, so it’s obvious why you would want to avoid this. But what many customers don’t realize is that it’s also a problem to underpay.

If a web developer has committed to you to get the job done for a fixed bid and half way through the project they realize it is taking MUCH longer than anticipated, one of two things is going to happen. They are either going to come back to you for more money and you are going to have an uncomfortable conversation about why should pay more than you thought you were going to pay for the same project. Or, they will try to suck it up and get the project done for the original bid. However, if they choose this route, they are going to be in pain because they will be putting in hours that they aren’t getting paid for. And you can bet that their pain will become your pain. They will start telling you things can’t be done when you ask for even the smallest change. It’s not that it can’t be done, it’s that they don’t want to do it because they are already putting way more hours in than they planned. Next, the project will slow down because now they have to get other work in to pay for the work they are doing for you. Finally, the quality of the work will suffer as they put their least experienced (and least expensive) resources on the job.

This explains most project failures in our industry. The same problem plagues the custom home-building industry. It’s just that it’s been happening there for so many more years that owners aren’t as surprised when their project goes over the estimate by 50%.

So, what’s the solution? Tune in next time…


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